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To Be Young, Gifted and a Black Anteater

A fraternity's blackface video just scratches the surface of the long-standing hostility toward African-American students at UC Irvine

On a late Monday afternoon, young men and women fill rows of folding chairs at a Black Student Union (BSU) meeting in the Cross-Cultural Center at UC Irvine. They raise their hands and speak one by one.

"My friend and I were called 'nigger bitches' at a party," says a curvy girl in a yellow polka-dot dress. Groans erupt throughout the room.

"People in my dorm say I only got into this school because I'm an athlete," another member says.

UCI's Black Student Union and allies at a recent protest
Eric Hood
UCI's Black Student Union and allies at a recent protest
Kala Lacy: "UCI, I am tired of you ignoring me!"
Eric Hood
Kala Lacy: "UCI, I am tired of you ignoring me!"

A student notes the incidents on a rolling whiteboard as more hands rise.

"This guy I know was at the library, and some people came up to him and said, 'I'll give your monkey-ass a year,'" a young woman shares.

The chatter becomes louder.

"Outside the [gym], someone yelled, 'nigger' out of a car, then drove away," a man reveals.

"That happened to me, too!" another student chimes in.

BSU co-chairperson Kala Lacy stands beside the growing list, gently rubbing her fingertips against the pendant on her necklace, a soft piece of leather cut into the shape of Africa. A petite 20-year-old with perfectly curled eyelashes and big, rounded hair reminiscent of Angela Davis, she listens as more stories dart from the crowd.

"Someone wrote 'nigger' on my door."

"A fraternity held a 'Rastafari Safari.'"

"On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a dining hall served chicken and waffles."

"They sell Afros in the bookstore."

The last one triggers a discussion about why this is wrong. Afro wigs were being sold to fans as a nod to UCI star basketball player Michael Wilder, an African-American student with a hairstyle out of the American Basketball Association.

"You can buy blackness!" Lacy proclaims in a sarcastic, faux-TV-commercial voice. "Put it on! Take it off!" She poses in the manner of a The Price Is Right model, holding the grand prize.

"It reminds me of a saying," adds Zahra Ahmed, a UCI staff member. "'Everybody wants to be us, but don't nobody wanna be us.'"

"Mm-hmm!" a few girls yell out.

Ahmed continues. "For those who are privileged enough to benefit from the oppression of others, they can buy this Afro wig and put it on and identify superficially with this black man, but at the same time, they can dress in blackface and do drive-by N-words because when it comes to the reality of everyday life, don't nobody wanna be black!"

About 50 BSU members are making final preparations for a campus protest, at which they plan to display the whiteboard filled with acts of ignorance and racism committed against them at UCI for all the school to see. The timing is critical—they need to get this out soon, while people are still talking about recent events. Days earlier, on April 24, a music video had surfaced on Facebook showing four members of the school's oldest Asian-American fraternity, Lambda Theta Delta, dancing and lip-synching to Justin Timberlake's hit song "Suit and Tie." One of them had his face covered in black makeup to portray hip-hop titan Jay-Z.

The student's use of blackface, one of the most destructive and painful offenses against people of African descent, made national headlines and sparked major damage control on campus, with everyone and anyone at UCI trying to distance themselves from the fiasco. Lambda Theta Delta immediately apologized for the video, calling it a "grave mistake of a few members," and suspended itself for a year. In a video released to UCI students, vice chancellor Thomas Parham proclaimed, "It is important that each of you know that incidents like this, while rare, do stand in sharp contrast to the values, virtues and the principles of the university."

Yet two weeks after the video emerged, a UCI freshman received a note in her backpack that read, "Go back 2 Africa slave."

Lacy has come to despise the word "rare."

"It's completely offensive!" she says. "To say that it's a rare occurrence totally ignores the experience of black students on this campus. It's erasing an entire lifetime at UCI."

Using the recent, highly publicized incidents as a platform, black students express anger, fear and frustration over what they believe is an anti-black campus climate. While they say racism isn't unique to UCI, the numbers add strain—African-Americans make up just 2.6 percent of a student population of more than 27,000, in a county where African-Americans make up 2.1 percent of 3.1 million residents. Armed with a megaphone, they're pushing for policy changes, added curriculum and programming, and more accountability from the university.

But more than anything, they want someone to listen.

*     *     *

On a Facebook page called UCI Secrets, students can post anonymous thoughts and opinions on just about anything—secret crushes, sexual identity, drunken escapades. Often, the ramblings gravitate toward issues of race. One student, who identifies as half-black, responded to the outcry over the blackface video, writing, "Seriously, people, at what point will putting on brown face paint stop being offensive and just become one person not endowed with dark skin trying to look like someone who is? Will no non-black person ever be able to impersonate a black person simply because doing so was a derogatory act nearly a century ago? Or does the entire human race have to consult the history books every time we make a joke or do anything publicly?"

These days, college students have become notorious for playing with racial taboos through parties themed after cultural stereotypes. "Ghetto fabulous" galas, such as the infamous 2010 "Compton Cookout" at UC San Diego, come complete with fake teeth grills, do-rags, butt pads and gang signs, while Mexican-mocking affairs showcase girls feigning pregnancies and guys in border patrol uniforms.

"Racism is not new," says Tamara Storey, UCI's senior student-affairs specialist."There is a gray area that is coming up now that makes it seem new. We have lots of artists using the word 'nigger.' We have lots of students using it just as another word. So students don't know. They're wondering, 'Should I use it? Is it okay to use it? Can I use it if I'm black? Can I use it if I'm not black?'

"If I didn't know the history of blackface, I might think it's tacky, but not racist," Storey adds. "We need to figure out how to educate our culture. How do we change the climate that says this is okay?"

This education process often begins with black students themselves. For many, college is an opportunity to explore and connect with a heritage they may have only read a few pages about in their high school history books or celebrated once a year during February. And if the black students themselves know little about the historical context of their culture, imagine going to a school populated by kids with no clue whatsoever.

That's what Lacy encountered upon enrolling at UCI. Growing up in a mostly white neighborhood in San Diego, Lacy often felt isolated. Classmates taunted her with racist remarks—she remembers one student telling her she was only good for shaking her ass or picking cotton—and she let them. "I couldn't explain the different feelings I felt," she says, speaking calmly while softly rubbing her right arm. She sits on a campus bench next to her backpack, speckled with buttons: "I heart being black," "Stop Racism" and "This Revolution Will Not Be Privatized."

"It was like, 'I know I'm angry, but I'm not exactly sure why.' I know what they said is messed up, but I don't really have the words to explain why that wasn't right."

Lacy says a black community was something she was looking for in potential colleges, and "I really liked what I saw at UCI." But when she arrived at the university, subtle stereotyping popped up everywhere. People would come up to her and touch her hair without asking, or they would ask if she could teach them how to dance. "Someone I've never met before just assumed I was sassy," she adds. "They were like, 'I've never met sassy black Kala.' And I was like, 'I have never met you before. Where are you getting that idea from?' It was just different things like that all the time. People would change their language around me, saying, 'Hey, girl, wassup?'"

One day, while waiting at the bus stop underneath the bridge on Campus Drive, a white woman who may or may not have been a UCI student started firing racial slurs at her: "nigger bitch," "nigger slut" and "Go back to your nigger pimp." With other students standing nearby and staring silently, Lacy didn't know how to react. "Things go through your mind like, 'Okay, well, fight her. Make her hurt how you're hurting right now,'" she says. "But being a black student, you understand what happens when you're the body that's making violence happen."

Lacy found comfort in the school's BSU, as members shared similar stories and frustrations. "That's when I felt like I wasn't so different, like I wasn't crazy to be mad at all these people who had done me wrong," she says. She started taking African-American studies courses, where she gained an academic vocabulary for discussing issues of race, and she eventually took on the role of BSU co-chairperson alongside her friend, Ainaria Johnson. Standing up for the black community has become her mission.

"This is more of a chance for me to say the things I didn't get to say when I was growing up," she says. "I'm in a much better place because I have the language, I have the history, I have the means. It's almost sort of a redemption for high school Kala, who never said anything."

*     *     *

The music video featuring four members of Lambda Theta Delta was created as a promotion for the fraternity's annual event celebrating the entrance of new brothers. It was uploaded to YouTube with the disclaimer "No racism intended. All fun and laughter."

When Lacy saw the video, she says she was "surprised, but not surprised." She immediately contacted her fellow BSU board members. "I was like, 'When are we meeting to discuss what we need to do?'" she recalls. "I knew this was one that we couldn't just let slide by."

Before the video could go viral, Lambda Theta Delta posted a lengthy apology to its Facebook page, stating, "The collective house is aware of the great ignorance of the video as it perpetuates a gravely offensive stereotype against African-Americans. . . . We apologize for its creation as well as any mental anguish the production has caused to the community. . . . Regardless of the circumstances, the video proves the existence of racism and ignorance today."

A week later, before an investigation by the university had been completed, the fraternity announced it would suspend its status as a UCI organization until fall 2014.

UCI vice chancellor Thomas Parham applauds the fraternity's quick apology and self-imposed suspension. "This particular group of men had a choice," he says. "They could have engaged in denial or gotten defensive and tried to rationalize their behavior, or they could have said nothing. But they stood up like men and apologized for their actions."

Parham (who's African-American) maintains that events such as the blackface video and hateful note found in a student's backpack are "deplorable," but he insists they're rare at UCI—and that the BSU is exaggerating the atmosphere on campus. "Those incidents can paint with a broad brush this institution as a hotbed of racism when it's not. . . . Not everyone thinks with the same mind and agrees with the same position. Many black students are having good experiences at this university."

The vice chancellor, who attended UCI as a student in the 1970s, says, "Diversity has been the hallmark of the campus experience for decades." Nearly 70 percent of the student body is made of people of color. (Asian-Americans make up 49 percent.) The school was the first in the University of California system to establish a Cross-Cultural Center, which has become a model for campuses across the country. There are diversity symposiums, workshops, support groups and festivals.

"Listen, I grew up in the shadows of [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and Malcolm [X]," he says. "I grew up marching for equality. I fought this struggle. I get it. I didn't just become not-black yesterday because I became an administrator. I don't deny that the incident existed. I don't deny the authenticity of the pain. But what we can't do is insulate students from every single incident or act of racial insensitivity. I can't control the fact that a fraternity would make an insensitive video."

Still, BSU members want the university to be held accountable. As far back as 1989, in a Los Angeles Times article tellingly titled "Why Some Blacks Feel Locked Out at UC Irvine," black students were complaining about an anti-black attitude on campus. The current BSU's demands for zero tolerance against discrimination and violence, an official punitive policy for future transgressions against the black community, and the establishment of an official African-American studies department, are virtually the same as those from students 24 years ago.

"It's so easy for people to say, 'forgive and forget' when no one has to deal with the violence except for us," Lacy says. "As a community, we're really over it, and we shouldn't have to be dealing with this anymore. We don't want to be the only ones fighting our battle the next time around."

*     *     *

It's lunch time at UCI, and BSU members are standing in silence in the middle of Ring Road, the school's bustling walkway. They're dressed in all black, and taped to each of their shirts is a sheet of white paper declaring a personal statement.

"Being black at UCI means I can't wear hoop earrings without being called 'ghetto,'" one reads.

"Being black at UCI means not being acknowledged by the faculty within your graduate program," reads another.

The whiteboard from the previous night rests under a tree. A handful of passersby stop to find out what's going on.

One BSU member tells an Asian student about the blackface video. "That's offensive?" the student asks.

Another young man on a scooter glides past the rally and yells, "So dramatic!"

Wearing a camouflage army jacket and combat boots, Lacy takes the megaphone. The loudspeakers screech before she begins to yell all the things she's wanted to say.

"UCI, I am tired of you ignoring me," she screams. "UCI, I am tired of you letting this violence happen. UCI, I am tired of you just walking past me and just watching me suffer. UCI, I should not be afraid to go to class for fear that someone will wonder why I am there. UCI, it should not be acceptable for 30 students to watch me be racially harassed at a bus stop. UCI, you are not allowed to touch my hair. UCI, I am tired of having to prove myself to you. UCI, I am just as valuable as you."

Her hand clenches into a fist. "UCI, we are tired! We are tired of having to fight every day. Do you hear me? We are tired! We are tired!"

She lowers the megaphone and begins to sob, her sunglasses masking her eyes. Two girlfriends comfort her.

"It's just something really heavy to carry," Lacy says, her voice calm once again. "Even though we're supposed to be out here strong, it's very real. People can walk by, they can read the signs, and they can forget about it, but this is something that's on our shoulders, on our mind all the time. And it gets really difficult to handle sometimes. It's knowing that after this is all done, I'm still gonna have to carry this—the community is still gonna have to carry this."

As the protest goes on, black students stand in the center of the pathway, arms linked, forming a chain.

In unison, they chant, "While there is racism, we will not rest!"

They wait for someone to stop and listen.

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